The Chilito is Dead, Long Live the Chilito

Hot and Mild Chilitos at Zantigo // Photo by Sam Ziegler

There are some favorite childhood foods that stay with you all your life—the way they smelled and tasted, their texture, and all the times and places you ate them become indelible memories. These are the foods we chase down as adults and enthusiastically foist on our family and friends. To eat them again is joyful and deeply comforting. For Minneapolis artist Robb Burnham (whose nom de plume is WACSO), that food is Zantigo’s Chilito and Taco Burrito.

“My grandmother had a ‘73 Firebird,” he says. “My parents would drop me off at her house when I was real little, and she’d take me to the Zantigo in downtown Crystal—eating Chilitos in the Firebird, I mean, that’s my childhood right there.”

At that point in the fast-food joint’s convoluted history, it was probably called Zapata. Minnesota restaurateur Marno McDermott—one of the guys behind the ill-fated Chi-Chi’s—launched Zapata in 1969. The original signage featured an ink drawing of the revolutionary Mexican general in a broad charro hat with an enviably thick double handlebar mustache. He had a bandolier crossed over his shirt and jacket, spurs on his boots and a pistol at his belt. When McDermott sold the chain to Heublein, the parent company of Kentucky Fried Chicken, five years later, they changed the name. Not for political reasons, but because Zantigo was easier to trademark—apparently, everything was called Zapata back then. 

Heublein eventually sold Zantigo to RJR Nabisco, which grew it like crazy: At its peak, there were 150 stores, a mix of corporate and franchise, in Arizona, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon, Wisconsin, and Arizona. If you’re a person over 40 in Minneapolis, you probably ate there—a lot. “From 13 to 16, I swam for the Southdale YMCA Beavers,” says Kelly McManus, an independent brand strategist in Minneapolis. “When we were rushing to practice, we’d stop at Zantigo. When you’re a kid, everybody loves the same thing, and so even when I’d get a ride from someone else’s parents we’d stop.”

WASCO and Mike Cronin and their array of Zantigo selections // Photo by Sam Ziegler

The thing everybody loved was the Mild Chilito, McManus says. “They were less than a dollar, the cheapest thing on the menu—just a flour tortilla rolled up with cheese, but it had some sort of sauce, thin not chunky, just a little bit spicy, so good, and the cheese was like molten lava, it would ooze out everywhere. It was just the most delicious thing.”

It was that way for WACSO, too. “Clearly my parents didn’t like to cook,” he laughs. “I grew up on this stuff and ate it all the time, all the way through high school, so that’s a steady diet of Chilitos and Taco Burritos from the ‘70s to sometime in the…I can’t remember the exact year they all went away.”  

Don Kaelble remembers. He was a training store manager at Zantigo in 1986, when it sold to PepsiCo, which owned Taco Bell. “There was a big meeting with all the Zantigo and Taco Bell managers,” he says. “They laid out that PepsiCo didn’t like competition in the same company, and Zantigo was the smaller chain, so it was going to be converted.”

Kevin and Don Kaeble owners of Zantigo // Photo by Sam Ziegler

By then, Kaelble had been working there for 11 years. He talks about the conversions with sadness and anecdotal ire. “I reopened a converted Taco Bell in Maplewood,” he says. “One day a guy walks up to the kid at the register, naming everything off the Zantigo menu he wants to eat. The kid [at the register]’s kind of dumbfounded ‘cause he doesn’t know anything about Zantigo. ‘Sir, sir,’ he says, ‘this is a Taco Bell.’ Guy looks around and goes, ‘Fuck this.’” 

Lots of people missed Zantigo, and for a while Taco Bell offered a “chilito” with beef and red sauce, which it eventually renamed Chili Cheese Burrito. The thing gained a cult following before it was dropped from the menu, and rumor has it that if you know to ask for it, they’ll still make you one at some locations, mostly in the Midwest.  As local comedian Brandi Brown put it on her Facebook page: “The most Minnesotan thing is: leaving the state, going to Taco Bell, trying to order a chili cheese burrito, and then being upset no one knows WTF you are talking about.”

Minnesotans can actually have the real deal, thanks to Kaelble’s near-miraculous taste buds. In 1991, Kaelble and his brother Kevin opened a Cajun Joe’s Chicken—a franchise out of Boston that Subway had recently taken nationwide. “It didn’t catch on out here,” says Kevin Kaelble. “We lasted five months, so here we are with this store just built, and we gotta do something else with it.”

As it happened, Don Kaelble had been messing around in his kitchen, trying to recreate the old Zantigo dishes. All of the original recipes had disappeared with the restaurant, so he’d been working from memory, bouncing his experiments off other people who’d worked there. He says the dishes he’d made from scratch as a teenage chef at Zantigo, like the Hot Chili Chilitos, were fairly easy to figure out. The Mild Chilito was the hardest: its red chili sauce was made from spices that came to the store in a Ziploc bag—and then buried so deep in cheese that its flavor was well-nigh impenetrable. He’d been tinkering with the recipes for about five years. “I had no intention of opening a store,” he said. “I was just doing it because there were people who liked the food and really missed it, but then we had to pay off $150,000 in loans, and we thought, well, maybe my half-baked recipes are the way to do it.” 

The Kaelble brothers reopened their White Bear Lake store as Zapata in 1992. They’ve now been in business 10 years longer than the original chain, and in the ensuing years, they’ve grown to four stores and acquired the trademark for Zantigo. 

West Seventh Street Zantigo location // Photo by Sam Ziegler

“The thing that blew me away about Zantigo coming back,” says WACSO, “was that the taste was exactly the same as it was back in the ‘70s.” We’re sitting in the Zantigo on West 7th in St. Paul. The building was originally a Zapata, then a Zantigo, and then a Taco Bell. The Kaelbles bought it two years ago, and Don Kaelble showed us a perfectly preserved Styrofoam Zapata cup he’d excavated from an air vent. Today there are just a few people in the dining room, but a steady stream of cars winds around the building for the drive-through. WACSO has brought a friend along, writer Mike Cronin, who works with him at an advertising firm in Minneapolis. They have a ritual: they each get a Taco Burrito, a Mild Chilito, a Hot Chilito—and then WACSO gets a Cheese and Onion Enchilada, which he’ll take to go and eat at some later point.

 We try the Taco Burrito ($3.49) first. It’s filled with taco meat and soft, salty refried beans. “I like the cool ingredients wrapped in with it,” says Cronin, “the crunch of the fresh lettuce and tomato.”

“The onions are magic,” WACSO adds. “They’re not afraid of the onions.”

“And notice,” Cronin says, “as we’re eating this that the shells have that gritty, kind of floury feeling on the outside? It’s the right thickness, it’s not overly doughy, it’s not overly floury.”

The flour tortillas are amazing. They’re hand-stretched and as tender, chewy and pliant as the average pressed tortillas are waxy and tough. It took the Kaelbles a while to find them—a lot of travel, a lot of tortilla-eating. In part that’s because Zantigo goes through about 734,000 flour tortillas a year. “There are only four manufacturers in the country that can do a large quantity like that,” Don Kaelble says, “Not many people use them anymore because they’re too expensive—running a hand-stretch line is double the labor of pressed tortillas.” 

Feast at Zantigo // Photo by Sam Ziegler

Feast at Zantigo // Photo by Sam Ziegler

But that’s what the Kaelbles use because that’s what was wrapped around the original Chilitos, and while Zantigo is definitely in the fast-food category, they’re going for quality and freshness. They use Burnett Dairy Cooperative cheese from Wisconsin, fry their chips and taco shells fresh every day, and cook everything from scratch. The restaurants even offer respectable carnitas- and barbacoa-style meat options. “Our competitors have a commissary somewhere, or they bring food in precooked, so all they have to do is throw a pouch in a pot of boiling water,” Kevin Kaelble says. “We cook in the stores, and it may cost more to do it that way, but it’s better than most of what’s out there. It’s not going to have preservatives, so it’s fresher.”       

At this point, WACSO and Cronin have made their way through the enigmatic Mild Chilito, and they’re on to the Hot Chilito, which has a green chili sauce in it. “When I first saw mild and hot,” Mike says, “I thought it would be a hotter version of the same flavor — no, not at all, it’s a whole other flavor.”

It tastes like tomatillos and cilantro, but that almost doesn’t matter. It’s good in a vague way that only fast food can be, and you want to inhale it whole. “It’s so funny,” WACSO says, “I’m back in my childhood when I eat these things, where you don’t know what it is, you just like it.”

The Kaelbles have recently added a couple of new dishes to the menu. WACSO and Cronin try a Chorizo Chilito ($1.99) that’s got a little heat and a pleasing fattiness to it. And there’s a Fiesta Chili Bowl ($5.99) with the green chili, chorizo chili, white rice, beans, and cheese. Scooped up with a flour tortilla, it’s not bad. “The problem is,” Mike says, “you can’t really try new things because you gotta get the stuff you love. It’s like the State Fair.”

“I can only get two Chilitos—now there’s a third—and a Taco Burrito, and I’m done,” WACSO sighs. “I can’t eat like I used to, and that’s probably a good thing.” 

And then he adds: “In 1986, Mike Bartos ate 10 Chilitos in one sitting at the Crystal store. I mean, he was 16. But before that, someone had eaten 8 in one sitting. He beat it by two, that’s pretty good.”

 Nostalgia for Zantigo is just as strong outside of Minnesota. Don Kaelble told us stories of people making the Chilito pilgrimage from Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Milwaukee. In 1999, a man in Phoenix called Kaelble hoping to get some Chilitos—as fate would have, Kaelble was on his way out there to visit the tortilla plant. “I just brought the sauce, picked up tortillas right from the plant, and went to his house and showed him how to make Chilitos.” 

 Even as we were sitting in the West 7th store, a man stopped to talk with the Kaelbles. “Are you the owners?” he asked. “I want to thank you on behalf of my family, who grew up eating at your restaurant down in Mankato. My kids are 40. My son, who lives in DC, wants to come here right when he gets off the plane.”

For WACSO, who has dragged his family and friends into the restaurant, and even Fed-Exed fresh Chilitos to friends in other cities, all this enthusiasm is heartening. “I think the Chilito is the marquee item, and you have to get it because it’s addictive,” he says. “It’s like the Juicy Lucy, in that it’s just a weird thing that has some quality about it—what is that? I don’t know, but I just hope more people will try it. I’d love to see that thing take off again.”